First up, what exactly are bitters?
“Think of bitters like seasoning! They are intense flavours suspended in alcohol through the maceration of different botanicals. They’re used for adding a small amount of intense, bitter, botanical flavour to your drinks. Bitters were originally created as tinctures full of health properties in the 18th century (peppermint for digestion, ginger for a sore throat and so on) and were diluted with alcohol because the water at the time wasn’t up to standard. Lime was added to prevent scurvy, and that’s how the very first cocktails came about, based on a simple combination of spirit, water, sugar and bitters.” – Jess Williamson, Master of Malt
“Bitters is a slightly confusing name because they’re not necessarily always ‘bitter’. Bitters are made by infusing a neutral spirit with any number of aromatics, including spices, tree bark, roots, seeds or fruit. In the context of cocktails today, bitters are used to impart certain key flavours and add a nuance to drinks. A bartender will often choose a specific style or flavour of bitters to enhance their drinks by adding a richer or more powerful note.” – Nate Sorby, brand ambassador, Cazcabel Tequila & Cut Rum
Why have we started to hear a bit more about them in recent years?
“Simply because people are getting more experimental with their home bartending – if this was a growing trend over the last few years, the last 18 months has majorly accelerated it, as people have been forced to make cocktails at home.” – Jess
“The rise in popularity of cocktail bitters is probably also due to the increase of more artisanal or craft bitter brands, as well as the recent return to a more classic approach to cocktails – bartenders have been rediscovering old recipes that call for bitters as a flavour enhancer rather than a syrup or a liqueur.” – Nate
Everyone will recognise Angostura, but what are the other brands and flavours to know?
“Like Angostura, Peychaud’s is another classic, but more modern brands like Bob’s Bitters, Ms Better’s, Fee Brothers and Bitter Bastards cover a wide range of single botanical bitters, unlike Angostura and Peychaud’s, which pack in multiple botanicals.” – Jess
“Peychaud’s is a brand that has stood the test of time much like Angostura. It was used in the classic Sazarac after being developed in 1830 by a Haitian apothecary who settled in New Orleans. Another popular and easy-to-source brand to look out for is Fee Brothers, an American brand that has a host of different flavours from orange through to cherry and rhubarb. Cacao or Aztec chocolate bitters have also seen a bit of a resurgence and are especially good for adding a rich flavour to stirred-down rum and agave-based drinks. Look out for brands such as Bitter Truth, which uses natural ingredients in its bitters.” – Nate
Which are the classic cocktails that really need bitters?
“Classic cocktails often call for Peychaud's or Angostura bitters, like a Manhattan, Sazerac or Old Fashioned. They’re crucial here because there are so few ingredients in these cocktails, so the bitters really stand out and elevate the drinks.” – Jess
“Most classic recipes that use bitters tend to be simpler drinks that are often stirred down, such as the Old Fashioned or the Sazerac, which is similar in style to the Old Fashioned but incorporates an absinthe-rinsed glass and the fruiter Peychaud’s. The Dark & Stormy (rum and ginger beer) uses large dashes to add flavour and colour to the drink. With the wide variety of flavours and styles now available you can use bitters to enhance any cocktail – a couple of dashes to a Margarita or Daiquiri can lift key flavours and give a subtle depth of flavour.” – Nate
Do certain bitters work best for certain spirits?
“Generally, floral and herbaceous bitters will work better in lighter spirits, like white rum, unaged agave spirits or gin. Chocolate or vanilla bitters will pair better with dark, aged spirits, like rum, whisky or brandy, because those are the flavours you’ll find in the spirits already. But there are always exceptions to the rule! Don’t be afraid to experiment.” – Jess
“It’s always important to use bitters with caution as too much can overpower any spirit or finished cocktail. It’s best to think about the flavour profile of the spirit you’re using when picking which flavour or style of bitters to use. The classic style such as Angostura or Bob’s Bitters will add depth and a herbal note to your drinks, but are more bitter than some of the fruitier flavours. It’s important to think about the overall flavour of your drink as well as the spirit. Tequila and rum, for example, work wonders with chocolate whereas an American whiskey or Scotch plays well with soft fruits such as orange or peach.” – Nate
What’s your favourite way to use them?
“I enjoy switching out classic bitters for single botanical ones in a classic cocktail: for example, chocolate bitters in a Manhattan bring out those already chocolatey notes in the rye whiskey. Subtle twists on classics are a good place to start if you’re looking to experiment.” – Jess
“My favourite way to use them is to elevate the key flavour of the drink and add depth without adding additional sugars or alcohol. A few drops of the right bitters will enhance the drink. I am always thinking of the final drink when selecting bitters and what I want them to add to that drink. If I’m making something spirit forward and stirred down with rum, I will use something with more punch like Angostura or Bitter Truth chocolate bitters. For subtler drinks such as a classic Toreador, I will add a few drops of orange or peach bitters to enhance the apricot brandy.” – Nate